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What is a virtual team?

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virtual teams
Trust in Virtual Teams

“Virtuality…is a critique on how work gets done,” writes Thomas P. Wise in his book, Trust in Virtual Teams.

Before I read the book, I defined a virtual team as one that was split over several locations. If the team was physically located together, then they weren’t virtual.

However, Wise sees it differently. He believes there are multiple ways to define a virtual team, and location is only one of them.

What is a virtual team?

A virtual team is one that is either:

  • Separated by geography – not located in the same place;

or

  • Reliant on technology to communicate most of the time.

You can be part of a virtual team and still be in same office as most of your colleagues, if you communicate mainly via Zoom, webex, email or even the phone.

That pretty much makes most of the teams I have ever worked in virtual.

Let’s look at those criteria in more detail.

Geography

The more time you spend working with your team in the same location, the less you have to rely on electronic emails and other types of computer-mediated communication, so the less ‘virtual’ your team is.

Geography also plays a part in how well a virtual team bonds at the beginning of the project. The more experience individuals have with working in a virtual team, the better they tend to be at it and at starting off from a trusting position which helps build the team quickly.

Wise says that off-shore outsourcing companies that only work in this way tend to be very good at hitting the ground running because they have lots of experience on teams where the members are not in the same location.

They assume trust and they assume ways of working that automatically suit the virtual model, whereas team members who have not had prior experience of virtual teams will need a bit of time to find their feet with this new approach.

Geographic distance can also mean that team conflict manifests itself in different ways. This is something that project managers should look out for, as it can be harder to spot.

By the time you realise you should be managing team conflict, there could be a much larger issue than if you had noticed two colleagues having an argument in a project team meeting in your office.

Elizabeth Harrin in a meeting

Electronic Communication

“Virtuality is found in how team members work, not in where team members work,” Wise says. “Communication is often considered to be an indicator of team virtuality.”

I hadn’t considered this, but I’m sure you will have worked in an office where most of the team spend time emailing and instant messaging each other even though they could just get up and walk to the person’s desk instead.

Wise reports about 70% of people say over half of their communications are electronic. If this is true, then there are a lot of teams physically located together who are using a ‘virtual team’ approach.

Culture

“Virtuality is found in how team members work, not in where team members work.” Thomas P. Wise

Wise adds a third criteria that makes a team virtual – culture.

I didn’t think that the book explains the culture element particularly well. Wise says that young people have a different culture, which I can agree with – although I would extend it to say that each age group has a different culture, as Larry and Meagan Johnson explain so well in their book, Generations, Inc.

Wise doesn’t explain why culture makes a team virtual although he includes it as a factor in the chapter about virtual teams. He does say that culture is measured in the degree to which we find team members like ourselves. Perhaps that means that if the team members are not in the same location as us, they aren’t ‘like’ us and that makes building the relationship that little bit harder.

Given that workplaces are often multi-cultural and diverse anyway — and that we should be seeking out opportunities for diversity — defining virtual teams as those that contain ‘others’ seems divisive and unnecessary to me.

Conflict management in virtual teams

Wise comments again on conflict and says that it can arise as a result of culture on a virtual team, because people don’t perceive themselves to be equal, or find it harder to see equal behaviour on a virtual team. He recommends avoiding avoidance as a conflict management technique, which I would agree with – far better to tackle problems head on than leave them, virtual team or not.

So, location, type of communication and culture play a part in defining whether your project team is virtual or not, and personally I feel that culture is not something I’m comfortable using as part of the definition.

I would hazard a guess to say that most teams these days fall into one of these categories which means we are all working in a virtual world, even those of us with project team members at the desk next door.

What do you think? Come and join our multi-cultural, multi-national virtual Facebook group and share your thoughts!

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What is a virtual team?

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.

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